The latest hot button issue that has set Jewish media ablaze is Jewish unity.
Avram Infeld, Jewish scholar and president emeritus of Hillel International, says the Jewish people must find a way to be “unified when we are not at all uniform.”
We have never been uniform. We have been able to survive and thrive in so many places around the world because our varied expressions of Judaism have fostered incredible unity through the centuries.
Sadly, in our own community, while I have seen incredible moments of unity, there have also been disheartening examples of divisiveness.
We argue about the things Jewish communities have argued about since Joshua led us across the Jordan! We are in dispute about who has the authority to tell others how they can and should express their Judaism.
The ancient Temple priests fought hard to consolidate their power and centralize Jewish sacrifice within the Temple in Jerusalem. And yet, when we excavate ancient Israelite cities, we find sacrificial altars. We have evidence of the bitter dispute between the ancient streams of Judaism.
From the responsa letters that went back and forth between Jewish communities in the Middle Ages, it is clear that Judaism in Egypt was vastly different than it was in Rome, not to mention the huge chasms of difference between some of the Eastern European communities. But what is important is that Judaism has always existed with a healthy variety of opinions.
The Talmud teaches that we can, and should, learn what the various voices of tradition have to say on particular topics. Nevertheless, in a stroke of genius, the Talmudic editors understood that any issue should be given more than one voice. In most cases, they did not make a declaration as to which voice was definitively correct.
Jewish practice across the denominations varies greatly. There are practical differences and there are philosophical and theological differences. How can we be unified if we can’t agree?
But our strength has never been in various Jewish groups all agreeing on practice or beliefs. Our strength is in the understanding that each group has given these issues significant thought and study; that each group has come to its own understanding. Our job is to appreciate each group’s opinion, to learn from it, and to allow its wisdom to inform our own opinions and practices.
Recent disagreements over who can pray and how at the Kotel (Western Wall) is an example of how we, as 21st century Jews, miss the mark. For close to 2,000 years – from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until 1967 – the Kotel was a communal gathering place. Men and women prayed there as their hearts moved them. There was no official authority. No need for someone to tell other Jews how they should pray. Look at images of the Kotel from the early-20th century and you’ll see men and women next to each other –not bothering or yelling at each other – immersed in prayer and devotion.
When some elements in Jewish life call for maintaining the “status quo” at the Kotel, they are misrepresenting the truth. The status quo is what existed between 70 and 1967. It has only been in recent years that it has taken on the religious observances of an Orthodox synagogue. The Kotel belongs to every Jew, and as such, it must be a place where different Jewish practices and behaviours are not only permitted, but celebrated.
Often, the modern fallback is to say that if we observe something in the most stringent way then everyone can participate and feel comfortable. In the strongest of terms, I must say that philosophy is completely wrong! It allows one group’s belief and practice to govern everyone else’s. What we need is a model in which various observances and practices are celebrated; in which we share the varied ways of being Jewish with each other.
We need to pursue unity – a unified understanding that we all have much to contribute to the collective of our Jewish community.